I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, January 24, 2010

How I became a skydiver

Cut to June 1990. I'm now working full time at NCAR and I even have a car again. I'm living in a small basement apartment and have a very full life. I'm 47 and in good health; Chris lives nearby and visits me often. I have been a volunteer with the Forest Service for years now.

This is the setting for the next part of my life. I went to an air show with some friends and saw some skydivers landing on the grass in front of me. It was so exciting to see, and one of them, a guy named Mike, walked right by me and I saw he was barefoot! I asked him if it didn't hurt to land without shoes, and he handed me a discount coupon to try a skydive and pointed to the office. I went there and watched a couple of videos and my friend and I decided to use our coupons to make a tandem jump. We reserved spots for three months later, in September. Secretly I was glad the date was so far in the future, because I could find lots of reasons to back out.

But September came anyway, and I was confronted by my fear. I had a nightmare that I was staring into a huge dark hole and forced to jump into the void. The day dawned clear and calm, without a cloud in the sky. Weather was not going to cooperate. I met my tandem instructor. He showed me a video and told me that I would be strapped to his front side, and that I would have a chance to pull the ripcord if I wanted, but if I didn't pull it, he would. To this day I can remember the dread I felt as we walked to the small Cessna. There were five skydivers in the plane: two tandem instructors, me and the other passenger, and Mike, the guy who had given me the coupon. He would be getting out at a lower altitude, and we would be going to "the top" or two miles above the ground (12,000 feet, to be exact). The plane took off.

After a few minutes, Mike rolled up the canvas door and exposed the whole side of the plane open to the wind. I shrank back, even though I was sitting between my instructor's legs. Mike put his legs outside, looked back at me with that big smile, and fell out, smiling up at me the whole time. I watched his parachute open and I was aghast at what I was getting ready to do! The instructor rolled the door back down and we went up, up, higher and higher.

Now it was time. The door was opened again, and this time I put my legs out, crossed my arms in front of me, and suddenly we were in freefall. Freefall is like nothing you have ever experienced in your life. Your body thinks it's going to die, but you don't. You're in another world. It doesn't feel like you are falling. The wind is strong, and I forgot about everything, I didn't even realize that the tandem instructor was there with me. I saw a hand in front of my face, pointing at the ripcord and I remembered I was supposed to pull it. I did. And whump! We were suddenly no longer in freefall but under a huge rectangular rainbow of color.

My instructor asked me to help him steer the parachute, which I did, and I looked at the mountains, the sky, the ground. It was beautiful, so beautiful, as we headed back down to the landing area where I had originally seen Mike land barefoot. We landed softly and the instructor unhooked me from him. The experience still lives in my memory so clearly.

As I headed back home from the Drop Zone, I could not stop thinking about the freefall. It was like being on another planet, in another universe, and I wanted to feel that again. Three weeks later I made two more tandem jumps, and then I faced my dilemma: I wanted to learn to jump by myself, but I was already much older than most skydivers, and I was unable to decide whether or not I could work through my fear.

Because make no mistake: although I was thrilled to experience that freefall, I was also terrified. I knew that if I didn't go ahead and try, it would be the fear that kept me back, not expense, not lack of ability, just fear. I decided to take it one step at a time. I went through the basic course, a day-long lesson of learning how to deal with any emergency that might happen, because I would no longer be strapped to anybody, but under my own parachute.

I went through what is called AFF (Accelerated Freefall) training, where I was accompanied by two instructors who were holding on to me as we left the plane, but would be gone by the time I had pulled the ripcord. I could not think of anything during the next few months except my next jump. I would pass one level and move on to the next, making one jump each weekend, and on November 10, 1990, I was certified as a solo skydiver, with 13 jumps total under my belt.

My life had changed so much, because it was all I could think about. I bored my friends by recounting each experience over and over, and soon I made friends at the Drop Zone, because they would listen to me, tell me their stories, and my non-skydiving friends became less important to me. Every weekend as soon as I woke I would get in my car and drive an hour to the DZ, spend the day there learning, learning, always learning more about skydiving. By the time I had 35 jumps I had purchased my own equipment.

Just to show you how hooked I was: in 1991, my first full year of skydiving, I made 301 jumps. Some people, I found, get consumed like I was, but most are not. It's probably a good thing, because life as I had known it before I made that fateful jump was never the same. Skydiving had become my reason for living, and I gained so much pleasure and enjoyment from it that I felt I would never stop skydiving for any reason. All of my friends were now skydivers.

I spent time on the Internet reading about skydiving when I couldn't skydive. There was a news group called rec.skydiving that I read every day, faithfully, and I met a fellow skydiver there who fascinated me with his posts about skydiving. He wrote right directly to my heart, my mind, and I began to email him privately. We told stories about ourselves to each other, and we were the same age, but he had almost 3,000 skydives and I was a beginner with only a few hundred.

We began to talk on the phone, and then decided we had to meet. He lived in San Francisco and I lived in Boulder, so we started a series of plane trips back and forth. I loved him before I ever laid eyes on him. Yes, this person is my Smart Guy, who is lying in bed sleeping next to me as I write this on my laptop, twenty years later.

Next I'll write about our courtship, marriage in freefall, and how I became an AFF skydiving instructor.


Leave a Legacy said...

DJ, I look forward to these Sunday posts of yours. You do not cease to amaze me. You've taken so many risks in your life and experienced so much. The good with the bad. This sounds like a very happy time in your life.
My dad and brother have skydived, but I don't think I could. After your beautiful description of it, though, I could have second thoughts.

CiCi said...

Hi DJan, I just traipsed over to your other blog and now I have two places to keep track of you and your shenanigans. Like the (gulp) skydiving (cold sweat). I'm sorry if my body thinks it is going to die, I have to believe it knows more than I do. I can certainly understand how with your love of skydiving you would gravitate toward others with the same love of the sport. What a cool way to meet your sweet husband.

Norma Jean said...

I envy your need for adrenaline. I, however, get plenty just reading about it. Thanks for letting me vicariously live through your words and descriptions. I'll bet you could never imagine that someday your skydiving would become ho hum.

What's the next adventure going to be??

Whitney Lee said...

Courage. In every post about your past I see courage.

You have painted a vivid picture of you first jump; it almost makes me want to try it. I stress the word almost. A friend of my sister's wants to go skydiving for her 50th birthday. She and my sister plan to go at the end of April.

It sounds as if the meeting between you and Smart Guy was much healthier than some of your previous relationships. Obviously it has worked much better for you! I loved reading about your wedding on your other blog so I'm sure the next installment about your courtship will be wonderful:)

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

It sounds like a great experience, and I suspect it gave you a whole lot of strength for other things in life, too.

The Retired One said...

Everybody I know that has done it say they would (or have) done it again.
I am so scared of heights, I get sweaty just reading about your experience. ha

Looking forward to hearing about your romance with your honey next.

Buz said...

I've heard most of this before, of course, but it sure is fun reading it for some reason.

One tandem jump was enough for me, although I must admit I have very few memories that are seared so deeply into my mind. Or rather, the intensity of the experience (if not many of the details) is seared into my memory.

Stella Jones said...

No, I'm still not convinced. I wouldn't want to do it. I'm glad you did though because it opened up so many new opportunities for you and hey, it gave you the achievements that you may have been lacking in some other areas of your life. We all need to excel at something. This one, unlikely though it seems, is one of yours. Well done.
Blessings, Star

Far Side of Fifty said...

Oh I enjoyed this memory..you are so brave. We know the outcome..sometimes that you are still alive gives it all away..you still made it sound very scary..as I am sure it was.
How wonderful that you met Smart Guy and you had the same interests! Now for the big love story part..eh? :)

Brian Miller said...

nice. great memory...so cool that you saw something and went after it...cant imagine that feeling of freefall...maybe one day...smiles.

Donna B. said...

"I loved him before I ever laid eyes on him". Wow. Talk about soul mates...kindred free spirits! I am so glad I read this. I never knew this is how you met Smart Guy. AWESOME!

I put a single's ad in the Pennysaver ( a small newspaper from my small town which advertises bargains) I had the ad for over a year and had just changed the narative and added the word, "eclectic".

My husband just happened to be talking with a life long friend who had just met a young woman though a single's ad. My husband had just picked up his mail and while listening to his friend, thumbed through the Pennysaver and locked in on the word "eclectic".

After he hung up with his friend, he called my voice box and left me a message. I was away on a weekend trip with my Mom. We both listened to the message and decided he sounded interesting.

We met in April, 2000 at an Italian restaurant and talked for three hours. We continued to meet and by October decided we wanted to be exclusive. The following April, he proposed at the same Italian restaurant. We married one month after 911.

He is the love of my life.

Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

Hello Djan!
As a newbie female AFF student in my 40s, I totally appreciate your story. I understand about being scared silly yet not letting fear hold me back. And I understand about freefall being "another world," as you put it. (As for the latter, I sort of feel like I've discovered a semi-secret universe or ability that most people never experience.
p.s. Congrats on your upcoming anniversary!

amanda said...

I've read this post before, but I had to come back & read it again.
It was fun this time to recognize some names in the comments. :)